In a surprise move in the continuing effort to save the Times newspapers of London, the management of the Times announced this afternoon that it would dismiss all staff except journalists and continue to keep control of the papers if its dispute with printers of the National Graphical Association is not settled by 4 p.m. Sunday.
This announcement has increased pressure on the printers from other unions who have already settled and started a new round of speculation about the paper's future, fueled by a management statement that "Times newspapers will not be going out of business."
While today's developments have not stopped rumors that the Times and its copublications including the Sunday Times might be sold, the most prevalent rumor tonight is that the papers will not close. Several management, journalistic and union sources, said tonight that the two sides were only "inches away" from agreement.
Times management is firmly saying it will not sell the papers. Tonight a spokesman said, "The papers are not for sale. We are not encouraging bids, have not received any and will not accept any."
Nonetheless there is no lack of bidders for the Times.
Tiny Rowland, chief executive of the British giant, Lonrho Co., one of the bidders, said today, "We will pay whatever it takes to buy the papers."
Other prospective buyers include, Sir James Goldsmith, owner of L'Express in Paris and the new British magazine Now, and Vere Harmsworth, owner of the Daily Mail and Evening News in London.
Negotiations broke down Thursday morning, one hour past a supposedly final midnight deadline for settlement.
But printers union leaders asked for a further round of negotiations last night, just as the board of the Times' parent company, the International Thomson organization, was to give the final verdict on the future of its papers.
Management then gave the union until Sunday to come to a unanimous agreement.
Times sources said the unions have already made major concessions, including agreeing to produce a bigger paper than before, to work longer shifts and to stop wildcat strikes.
Disagreements remain, however, on staff levels in the composing room, with the union refusing to cut as many workers as management wants to accompany the introduction of computerized printing.